Cubs

With Yu Darvish as a backdrop, a weird, winning season continues for the Cubs

What a strange vibe there is right now to the Cubs. They have so many things going on, ranging from weird to unfortunate to bad, that you’d think they were scratching to get to .500 instead of owning the best record in the National League.

The never-ending Yu Darvish saga has been hanging over the organization like a piano on a pulley. The cartoon version would have the rope snapping and somebody getting pancaked by an 800-pound musical instrument. What’s left of that somebody would look suspiciously like team president Theo Epstein, who signed the right-hander in the offseason. The real-life version would have Darvish’s fussy right triceps standing as a metaphor for an odd, successful season. Can an odd season be successful? The Cubs seem to be on a mission to prove it can.

There’s an explanation for Darvish’s struggles – his arm hurts – but there isn’t one for what’s going on with the Cubs right now. In four recent games against the Pirates, they scored a total of four runs, all on solo home runs. Yet, somehow, the Cubs left Pittsburgh with a split. The Vatican is investigating it as a possible miracle.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon takes pride in his teams’ strong second-half performances, but this year’s version is 16-14 since the All-Star break.

Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish throws during a rehab start Sunday in South Bend, Ind. He left after one inning because of pain in his right arm. (Photo by Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune)

Jon Lester has been up and down, as has Jose Quintana and Kyle Hendricks. Tyler Chatwood? More like Tyler Disastwood. Epstein’s three-year, $38 million offseason signing was demoted to the bullpen a few weeks ago but got a start Saturday against the Pirates after Mike Montgomery went on the disabled list. Chatwood was yanked after walking the leadoff hitter in the third inning.

Did I mention that the Cubs still have the best record in the National League?

You want weird? Here’s weird: Before the trade deadline, they acquired 34-year-old Cole Hamels, who was 5-9 with a 4.72 earned-run average with Texas. Now he’s acting like he’s the Cubs’ best pitcher, possibly because he is. He’s 3-0 with a 0.72 ERA with his new team.

Addison Russell, normally an extremely reliable shortstop, has as many errors (14) as he has ever had in a season. A finger injury might explain that and his loss of power (five home runs). Or it might not. That’s how it goes with the Cubs.

The only consistent thing has been Maddon’s optimism. A house could be in flames and Joe would call it a controlled burn. But even he can’t hide the fact that his hitters have forgotten how to – what’s the word? — hit.

“We have to get our offense straightened out,’’ he said. “I can’t make any excuses for it.”

The only explanation is a very baseball one: These things happen. Baseball is a game of two- or three-week stretches, and this stretch is a lifeless one. The fan base is on edge, and the team shrugs. Is what’s happening anything other than weird? Or is there deeper meaning to it? If you know, feel free to hang a Psychic shingle.

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Like the Cubs of late, Epstein has had a rocky season. He has had bad luck with Darvish. The chorus from his critics is that Epstein should have known that the right-hander was “soft.’’ Somehow, an injury that won’t go away has become a window to a player’s mental makeup. Sorry, not buying that part of it. If you want to argue that Epstein made a bad decision by choosing Darvish over fan favorite Jake Arrieta, that’s completely fair. Especially with Arrieta’s ERA at 3.25 for the Phillies.

The decision to sign Chatwood looks even worse with the struggles of the rest of the Cubs’ rotation. Epstein gets kudos for Hamels and rookie David Bote, who is hitting .290 after 39 games, but let’s not have a parade for two guys who haven’t been with the club long.

I keep coming back to this: Isn’t it odd to be scrutinizing so closely (and harshly?) a team that is 19 games over .500 and 3½ games ahead of the second-place Brewers in the NL Central? A team that is without one of its best players, Kris Bryant, who is injured?

But that’s where the Cubs are now, floating on weird crosscurrents.

Darvish pitched one inning in a rehab start Sunday, then walked off the mound with discomfort near his right elbow. One inning? Of course it was one inning in this strange season. The Cubs are going through a stretch in which things don’t feel right, so it made perfect sense that Darvish would reflect that uneasiness with a pain-shortened outing.

A good year so far for the Cubs.

And an odd one.